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Fire Contained, Evacuation Lifted at Texas Chemical Site

Jeffrey Bair

(Bloomberg) -- The fire at a Texas chemical facility owned by TPC Group Inc. has been contained and an evacuation order for the surrounding community has been lifted, allowing thousands who spent Thanksgiving away from home to return.

“We are close to the end of this tragic event,” Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said at a press conference Friday. Glenn Johnson, mayor of Port Neches, said people should continue to stay away from the plant. “No looky-loos,” he said.

A blast early on Wednesday injured three workers and was felt for miles around the facility. It followed a string of similar accidents in Texas this year, including an explosion at a chemical plant northeast of Houston in March that left one person dead, two weeks after a blaze at an oil-storage facility caused thousands of gallons of petrochemicals to flow into Houston’s shipping channel. Exxon Mobil Corp.’s suburban Houston refining and chemicals complex erupted in flames in July.

Fires continue at the TPC plant and will be allowed to burn themselves out, Branick said. The blaze has been isolated from storage units, some of which were almost full. Stores of butadiene were spared, Johnson said.

Plant neighbors were advised that asbestos debris from the plant may have landed in their yards or burst through windows and to call emergency officials to handle the mess.

“Any debris is potentially contaminated debris,” said Troy Monk, director of health, safety and security at TPC. “Leave it be.”

Fog interrupted firefighting Friday, and Monk said coming rain could slow the effort to halt the fire. The National Weather Service estimated a 70% chance of rain in Beaumont Saturday.

TPC’s Port Neches facility produces more than 16% of north America’s butadiene, used to make synthetic rubber for tires and automobile hoses, and 12% of gasoline additive methyl tert-butyl ether, or MTBE.

The explosion occurred before dawn at a tank with finished butadiene located in the site’s south processing unit. A second smaller blast hit the plant about 12 hours later and sent flames and debris high into the air.

TPC received 11 written notices of emissions violations from September 2014 to August 2019, according to Texas Commission on Environmental Quality records. Three of those were this year and were classified as “moderate” violations. The company also received several high-priority violation notices from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Within the last year, I have witnessed an unacceptable trend of significant incidents impacting the Gulf Coast region,” Toby Baker, executive director at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said in a statement. “While not all emergency events may be prevented, it is imperative that industry be accountable and held to the highest standard of compliance to ensure the safety of the state’s citizens and the protection of the environment.”

TPC was taken private in a $706 million deal in 2012 by private-equity firms First Reserve Corp. and SK Capital Partners, which staved off a rival bid from fuel-additives maker Innospec Inc. that was backed by Blackstone Group. The company, formerly known as Texas Petrochemicals Inc., competes with LyondellBasell Industries NV in the butadiene market and is run by former Lyondell senior executive Ed Dineen.

Bonds in closely held TPC fell as much as 8% on the news on Wednesday, making them the worst performer among junk-rated securities. The notes had yet to trade Friday.

Port Neches is a city of about 13,000, halfway between the refining centers of Beaumont and Port Arthur. Located on the Neches River, the city has long been associated with oil refining and petrochemicals.

(Updates with advisory on asbestos debris and cleanup efforts in paragraphs four through seven, and TCEQ statement in paragraph 11.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeffrey Bair in Houston at jbair4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Simon Casey at scasey4@bloomberg.net, Catherine Traywick

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